BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe // Apart from paying his bus crews a daily subsistence allowance and buying fuel, Strike Ndlovu, a local public transport operator, knows when he sends his drivers out that some of their takings go towards an unlikely expense - the police. If they do not pay their way through traffic police checkpoints on Zimbabwe's roads, public transport workers say they face arbitrary arrests and the confiscation of their vehicles for minor offences.
"You do not give the officers money, you are as good as out of business," Mr Ndlovu said. "They make it a point that they frustrate you off the road if you don't pay. Previously officers were secretive; now, my crews tell me they demand money openly. Besides we see them receiving gifts." Mr Ndlovu, chairman of the Bulawayo Public Transporters' Association, said roads are littered with roadblocks. Some are illegal checkpoints mounted by errant officers with no other purpose than to extort money from motorists.
Police officers are among the lowest-paid civil servants in Zimbabwe and are resorting to bribery and corruption just to survive. Corruption, said Godwin Shana, a former official with Transparency International-Zimbabwe (TI-Z), now permeates the entire spectrum of Zimbabwean society as a result of the decade-long economic crisis and widespread shortages of basic goods and services. "So to get that which is in short supply, you have to pay a premium," Mr Shana said.
"Because the economic crisis has been with us for almost 10 years, it is not an understatement to say corruption has become endemic. I must also say that corruption is a function of political disorder and this has characterised our politics in recent years." Corruption has become a way of life at all levels in this embattled southern African country. To obtain a passport, to secure a front position in a supermarket queue for scarce products or to obtain limited farm inputs, one has to pay a "facilitation fee", the euphemism for a bribe.
Analysts say government lethargy in tackling the scourge, especially when corruption involves influential figures connected to the ruling elite has not helped matters. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe has seen high-profile corruption cases. In 1989, several ministers abused a government vehicle procurement facility by buying cars cheaply and reselling them at exorbitant prices. Robert Mugabe, the president, responded by appointing an inquiry, but pardoned the culprits.
Ten years later, some veterans of the war of liberation, including senior politicians and government ministers, looted a war victims' compensation fund by exaggerating their wartime injuries. This enabled them to receive huge sums of money in compensation from the government. None were sanctioned. When Mr Mugabe launched a programme to grab farms from whites in 2000, senior officials from his party, Zanu-PF, gobbled up multiple properties, regardless of a government policy that forbids ownership of more than one farm. He has instituted seven audits since then, and in Aug 2003 he declared that he would deal with the land grabbers. But so far no action has been taken.
Last month, an investigation proved that ministers and legislators illegally allocated themselves large amounts of scarce agricultural resources and then sold them at extortionate prices. Only a few minor participants in the scam have been prosecuted, but none of the influential figures have been arrested. With this apparent impunity, said Mary-Jane Ncube, TI-Z's executive director, corruption is at its worst.
"When the general public sees overt corruption happening, they think it is fashionable. They start thinking they cannot survive an honest life without cutting deals," Ms Ncube said Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog, ranked Zimbabwe 166 on its 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index out of 180 countries, just 10 places above Somalia, a failed state, and Myanmar, an impoverished military dictatorship.
This is despite Zimbabwe putting in place an anti-corruption commission in 2005, whose commissioners Mr Mugabe appoints. "The anti-corruption commission was stillborn," Mr Shana said. "It was a token gesture towards fighting corruption. From the start, it was clear it lacked independence and teeth to bite." A visit to the commission's website yielded no contact details of any of its commissioners and the latest news on the site was uploaded in 2006.
It still lists Johannes Tomana as a commissioner, although he quit after his appointment as attorney general late last year. "In the eyes of most ordinary Zimbabweans the commission has turned out to be an expensive smokescreen set up solely to divert attention from the greed and avarice of the powerful and influential within the ruling party," Mary Revesai wrote on Newzimbabwe.com in January last year.
For Zimbabwe to stand a chance of mitigating corruption, Mr Shana said, Zimbabwe needs accountable institutions, particularly police and a judiciary that are not beholden to any political party. firstname.lastname@example.org